Wild Wild North

Do you love the countryside? Imagine waking up to the soft sound of trees brushing, and leaves and waves sparkling in the sunshine. Then a cheeky squirrel gently taps on a window looking for a treat, or a friendly beaver waves his tail as a greeting. Picture freshly baked pastry paired with freshly brewed coffee, a wooden dock spread across crystal waters, a long awaited book by O’Henry and a loop of beautiful warm days…

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Knock-knock-knock – it’s reality: morning temperature in June on Manitoulin Island ranges from +4C-16C (if you are lucky), with the hottest +20C, high risk of rain and thunderstorms. When the weather locks you indoors, another round of pleasant surprises is awaiting – your cottage originally built in the 1910’s as a log cabin lacks every comfort that a city girl is so accustomed to: central heating, hot water, internet (forget Netflix), showers and a Nespresso coffee-maker! “No problem, let’s go for a drive” they say, though the closest restaurant is 37 km away and so is the closest supermarket – well, welcome, to the Wild Wild North.

There is something very Canadian about heading up north to survive through their vacation. It took me a while (a bottle of Ontario produced Riesling to be precise) to comprehend the fun behind jumping in a lake in June when it stayed frozen until the mid of May. The “now or never” motto applies to every aspect of the short Canadian summer experience.

I choose to discourage any boring anthropological, logical or any other sorts of statistics in favour of deep psychological analysis driven by Sigmund Freud to understand the truth, the pain and the joy of Canadian summer cottage lifestyle from dawn to dusk. There is always the possibility that the majority of Canadian population lives in the south of the country, spread across the border with US, so geographically two options are open – traveling to US (South) or up north (the rest of Canada). Here is the top 10:

  1. Summer is really short (obviously). It may accidently start any time from April to June or never start at all. For two summers in a row, 2013-2014, I experienced the worst weather possible with cold gloomy days, minimum sunshine, but generous daily showers. In fairness or in unfairness, the situation had improved just right after my departure. In their turn, Canadians are well aware of their moody climate and well prepared to cherish every bit of sunshine, so for them, cities are where one works during the year and cottages are meant for summer chill-outs (chill-out is a key word).
  1. Cities, think Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, get intolerably sweaty when the weather stays warm for a couple of days. Last July, Vancouver was surrounded to forest fires, balding lawns and big-tummy shirtless guys. Heat (and not-so-handsome shirtless guys) is a lot easier to tolerate in the shadows of tool-sheds, boathouses, oaks and wild cottage shrubs.
  1. Canadians love to hide away from hipsters (and hipsters from their fellow-hipsters), in order to not being judged for dressing super casual (or not casual enough), or wearing the same shorts for 2 weeks (as tried and tested at City Chick Gone Wild).
  1. Big city folks are used to squeezing into clustered spaces on subways, the office, streetcars, condos, detached houses, family vans or other places where functionality prevails. The find it super exotic to be out in beautiful nature, with affordable room and space just after an hour drive within Canada (they are patriots).
  1. The Wild Wild North is Wild! Yes, it’s a sense of danger in the most protected way through the luxury of locked doors and windows that appeals to sweet Canadian souls. Encounters with bears, snakes, foxes, wolves, deer and turtles are slightly exaggerated and passed in a form of a “knight’s tale” from generation to generation. Select Canadians of above-average toughness escape to remote locations to voluntarily deprive themselves from using electricity, running water, WiFi and technologies in favour of candle-lit dinners and physical labour. Well, the first hot shower back in the city turns out to be the sweetest thing ever (the dream!).
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Photo credit Mark M.

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  1. Physical labour. Well, Canadians enjoy physical labour with great enthusiasm. The next day after arrival at the cottage they start walking around looking for the stuff to fix, wood to split, trees to chop and picnic tables to build.
  1. Living and re-living Canadian stereotypes. Morning starts with blueberry pancakes soaked in Maple syrup, side bacon from St. Lawrence Market or from a gourmet store on Bloor. Beef sliders for lunch are prepared on the BBQ and eaten right before a trip to the beach where boats are sailed, rowed, motored and remote controlled. Caesars (have you tried? They involve clams) are stirred, not shaken around 5 o’clock. Crunchy celery stir sticks trick the mind into believe that this super Canadian cocktail is healthy. Then there is cold beer, chilled beer and more beer leading to dinner cooked on a campfire.
  1. Campfire! Hooray! The campfire is a ritual. Unlike in Dubai, buying wood to build one is considered a waste. Driftwood is collected right on site, carefully sorted into categories and then neatly arranged into a Tepee shaped pyramid. Dinner is cooked at the sunset; baked potatoes and sausages are followed by my favourite treat: s’mores (slightly burnt marshmallows pressed between butter cookies with a chunk of milk chocolate). The evening ends with sparkles and star gazing (Manitoulin Island is one of the few places where milky way is shining in its full glory)

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  1. Socializing – letting kids run freely, meeting childhood friends, lending and borrowing tools from neighbours, sipping cocktails on the dock, playing real table games (Monopoly, cards, spoons, etc.) and having long heartily chats after midnight. One would be surprised what the lack of Internet does to good people. Cottages are perfect for family re-unions too. Summer tends to bring the best team-oriented behaviour and drinks served in the early afternoon encourage good humour and an attitude of cooperation.
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Meet Mark, a super-skilled cottage neighbor who  knows the secrets to cooking the best fried fish on the planet Earth, and to taking the closest close-ups of wild bears
  1. Last, but not the least, is the healthy component of any cottage adventure – discovery walks, cycling to the grocery store, hiking the trails, swimming in a refreshingly freezing water, outdoor showers, simple food, lots of vegetables, fruits and vitamin D – so when the vacation is over, Canadians are glowing with happiness and sun kissed skin. Even their well known irony is replaced by simply funny jokes: “Guess what’s brown and sticky? – A stick!”. “What are 2 seasons in Canada? – “Winter and July”.

Speaking frankly, the Wild Wild North is not meant for everyone though, only the bravest hearts. Being there is a lifestyle adventure that takes a few summers to figure out and another few to fall in love with. So it happens that one day at the end of June you will wake up to the sound of a racoon pressing its teethies against your window for a better lick of fish flies off the glass, while a merciless north wind bashes waves onshore and the outdoor temperature lowers to +8C. You say, “good morning world!” and actually mean it.

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P.S. A group of great people have dedicated their time and humor to help me to write and review this post. Thank you Judy, Tom, Angie, Andrew, Mark and Sander.

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You scream “Ice Cream”!

For me, life is a scoop of ice cream. Or 2. Frigid at first, it softly melts, filling souls with joy, happiness and the tingling sensation of a sugar rush. Some will gulp it, others cherish every tiny bit (or pathetically waste it on a sidewalk…). It’s truly an adventure – you never know how far you will get unless you taste it. Ironically, when bikini season is around the corner, ice-cream stands seem to be always closer and greatly desirable.

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In  Toronto the art of ice cream making is taken rather seriously – a rare brand will offer less than 10 house-made flavors with dairy-free and vegan options. They pride themselves in locally sourced, organically grown ingredients (think Ontario strawberries Gelato at Soma) or alcohol-based flavors (Vegan Pinacolada at Bang Bang). Hunting for the right scoop of the 16th century dessert turns out to be an exciting expedition through witty names, flavors and neighborhoods. On your journey you will learn that “Pint” stands for a small bucket of a frozen treat to take home, which is often not available for sale at artisanal stores from May to October. So, are you ready? Follow me hungry readers!

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  1. Predictably in a search of “Gelato to die for” I headed to Little Italy on College. The scent of rich espresso infused with hazelnuts and happy body language clearly indicated that Dolce Gelato was my sort of a place. Endless selection (60 flavours!) of traditional (pistachio) and traditional with a twist (torrone – almonds and nougat) gelato is overwhelming… Do not repeat my mistake of pointing at the first good looking bucket. The best strategy is to invest some time in tasting and chatting with super friendly staff to select a serving of two flavours or more.

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2. The opposite of traditional, Put a Cone on It is a destination for rebellious and adventurous souls. Serving at only one location in Koreatown on Bloor they rotate a minimal selection of flavours (I counted 12) with maximum taste – Black Cat, Earl Grey, White Miso, Vanilla Malt and deliciously exotic Black Sesame (a must-try). If you decide to indulge in your ice cream on the go, be aware of a high risk of being stopped by fellow pedestrians longing to repeat your experience or steal your crispy vanilla waffle.

3. Ice-Cream Junction on Dundas West is the most kids-centric place I visited – there is a line of cute low-rise chairs at the entrance, tons of paper napkins on the counter, complimentary drinking water and a little step-stool in front of the freezers. They serve Canada-made, rich in flavor and history Kawartha ice cream in cups or house-baked cones. Their bright decor resembles the set up for Alice in Wonderland and visitors, surrounded by candies, toppings and sugar in various forms are encouraged to create their own perfect treat. Try Black Cherries!

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4. Soma Chocolatier on King street impresses with thoughtfully sophisticated design, sleek freezers and fancy ice-cream cups (even to the eye of a Dubai girl). Located downtown, in a crowded touristic area à côté de TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival theater) they nevertheless invest in taste and research. Known for seasonal flavors based on locally sourced ingredients, all their gelato and sorbets are made from scratch. A brisk evaluating look from a guy at the counter led to a suggestion that “blueberries and basil” sorbet was my alter-ego. He was absolutely right.

5. Ed’s real scoop on Roncesvalles Avenue is casual, delicious and widely affordable. They promote peace, taste and happiness. A branded t-shirt on a wall says, “Make ice-cream, not war”. There is something truly magical in the air – even the naughtiest little screamers behave, patiently awaiting their turn. For grown ups in the summer Ed often creates seasonal Mojito and Sangria sorbets infused with rum and real wine. My serving of pistachio gelato was so rich and velvety smooth that I almost forgot to take a photo.

6. Bang Bang ice-cream on Ossington Avenue is the easiest to find, but the hardest to get. Look out for a long queue of intriguingly dressed folks mostly in their 20-30s, busy chatting and Instagramming. Prepare to camp for a half an hour in the evening and do your homework: pick between cookies (7 types), waffle, cone or puff, topped with a scoop or two. Flavors like London Fog, Mud, Totaro are impossible to figure out. Fortunately the staff are trained to work under pressure, quickly answer questions and guide you in the right flavor direction. My choice was a scoop of mud between captain’s p’nut cookie cut in half. It’s unforgettable!

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